Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 552: debated on Tuesday 30 October 2012

Tomorrow we will welcome the President of Indonesia on a state visit. We are intensifying our diplomatic and economic links across south-east Asia. As well as having one of the world’s most thriving economies, Indonesia is in the vanguard of the political change shaping Asia, and this visit will be an opportunity for us to build on the strong partnership established over the past decade.

For nearly a decade I have been a supporter and patron of the Bereaved Families Forum Parents Circle, a grass-roots organisation which brings reconciliation and tolerance in Israel and the Palestinian territories. May I ask the Secretary of State or his Minister to pay tribute to this organisation and, at his earliest convenience on their next visit to the UK, to meet me and members of the group to discuss their work and how they can be further supported?

Yes, I can indeed commend the hon. Gentleman for his work with that group, which we know and think very well of. Its members do a difficult job trying to bring together people from both sides of the divide through their grief. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and members of the group when it is convenient for both of us.

T3. Like many others in the House, I welcome the Government’s efforts to keep the EU budget in check. Will my right hon. Friend be taking any lessons on that from the past example or present policy of the Labour party? (125237)

That would be a strange thing to take any lessons from, because when the shadow Foreign Secretary was Minister for Europe, the Labour Government signed away £7 billion of the British rebate with nothing in return. It is notable that last year Labour MEPs voted against a budget freeze in Europe because they wanted an increase instead. It is also notable that in the time that the shadow Chancellor was a Treasury adviser and in the Cabinet, the annual EU budget increased by no less than 47%.

Let me return to the subject of Europe, but its relationship with Iran. I associate myself with the latest round of sanctions that have been imposed. Given the imminence of the elections in the United States, what does the Foreign Secretary regard as being the next steps in the diplomatic engagement on the nuclear issue with Iran? In particular, following a rather well-sourced, I understand, piece in The New York Times last week, how does he judge the prospects for bilateral discussions between the United States and Iran on this issue?

The United States and Iran have both denied the prospects, let alone the existence, of such bilateral talks. The next step is for the E3 plus 3 nations, of which we are one, to consider what we can do in any further negotiations with Iran. Our experts are meeting on this. Of course, it is necessary for the US elections to be completed before any further round of negotiations can take place. We are open to those negotiations. We are considering whether to amend our approach in any way, but it remains the case that for them to be successful, Iran would have to engage with those negotiations in a much more meaningful way than before. In the absence of that, we have agreed intensified sanctions on Iran in the European Union, and I want Iran to know that as long as these negotiations are not successful, we will go on intensifying the sanctions pressure upon it.

T4. For over a decade the United Kingdom has supported Sierra Leone, both financially and through military involvement. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that he will do all he can to ensure that next month’s elections in Sierra Leone are free and fair? (125238)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important matter and can assure him that we are monitoring events carefully. For the edification of the House, the elections in Sierra Leone are on 17 November. All parties have completed their nomination procedures, political supporters have been active, there has been no serious trouble so far, thankfully, and the electoral institutions are making progress, but I acknowledge that there is more to do. The Department for International Development has a programme for the electoral cycle, from 2010 to 2014, and the high commission is engaged with the political leaders and, on election day, will provide a team of observers to ensure that the elections are free and fair.

T2. In the earlier discussion on Syria we did not talk about the refugees, but of course hundreds of thousands of people, both internally and in neighbouring countries, are now homeless and face a desperate situation. What are we and the international community doing to assist them? (125234)

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to draw attention to that. There are now up to 350,000 refugees in neighbouring countries, about 1.2 million people are thought to be internally displaced in Syria and about 2.5 million need humanitarian assistance. It is a rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis that will only get worse in the coming months. The United Kingdom is the second largest bilateral donor to the relief effort. We have so far given £39.5 million and consideration is being given to what further assistance we can give. We are also helping directly as well as through UN agencies, particularly in Jordan, so we are doing everything we can to alleviate the suffering in the crisis.

T5. In the past three months our exports to the EU fell by 7.3% while our exports to the rest of the world rose by 13.2%. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Britain’s future relies on strong trading relationships with the emerging economies that were largely neglected by the Labour party? (125239)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we are opening the 19 embassies and consulates to which the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), just referred. We are determined to expand Britain’s market share in the fastest-growing economies. In the past two years, from August 2010 to August 2012, we have seen an increase in our exports to China of 46%, to South Korea of 69% and to Thailand, which I will visit next week, of 118%.

The civil war in Syria and the estimated 100,000 refugees are having a seriously debilitating impact on Lebanon and remind us of the horrors that took place in that country between 1975 and 1990. What steps are the Government taking, through the international community, to try to return some stability to that country?

Again, that is an absolutely crucial issue. It is not a containable crisis, as I said earlier, and the impact on Lebanon is the starkest and most worrying example of that. We are working closely with the authorities in Lebanon. After the recent bomb outrage, the Prime Minister spoke immediately to the Prime Minister of Lebanon to urge stability, and our ambassador there is very active. We have increased the assistance we give directly to the Lebanese armed forces and, of course, much of the humanitarian assistance we are giving is going to Lebanon.

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the EU annual budget and multi-annual framework increased at least a dozen times while Labour was in power but that to accuse that Government of being responsible for all those complex and EU-wide budget increases would be as simplistic and opportunistic as the attack made by the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) on this Government yesterday?

I think that we have to judge the previous Government on the basis of what they actually did while in office. The fact remains that they took decisions that conceded the loss of a quarter of the United Kingdom’s hard-won rebate and left us with a current financial framework for the EU that was £13 billion over what they said in office would be the maximum they would accept. They let our country down, and they let it down badly.

What contact has the Foreign Secretary had with the Government of Turkey concerning the ongoing hunger strikes of Kurdish political prisoners and the demand for the release of Ocalan so that there can be negotiations on a future for the Kurdish people in Turkey whereby their language and their culture will be fully recognised in accordance with the recommendations of the Council of Europe?

We always try to make it clear in our conversations with the Turkish Government at both ministerial and official level that it is important that Turkey continues to make progress towards political reform and full implementation of the rule of law measures that we all want to see. I hope that the discussions between the Turkish political parties on a new constitution take us several steps forward. I would be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman further about the particular case that he has described.

Yes, absolutely. We welcome the election of a new President of Somalia, to whom I spoke directly after his election. The new Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), has already visited Somalia with the International Development Secretary. Important progress has been made since the London conference on Somalia, with a reduction in piracy, al-Shabaab in military retreat, and now a new and legitimate President. The United Kingdom will continue its strong support for these developments and the international leadership that we have given in relation to them. We will place just as much emphasis on Somalia in the coming year as we have in the past year.

What assessment has been made of the monitoring report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe on the outcome of the Ukrainian parliamentary elections?

We have had a preliminary report from the observers that indicates a number of shortcomings. We hope that in the remaining stages of the electoral process, in any appeals that follow, and, crucially, in how the Ukrainian Government conduct themselves after the elections, we will not see the wholesale democratic backsliding that we fear and that would set back Ukraine’s relationship with Europe.

Many emerging economies such as China are showing significant interest in investing in energy projects off the East Anglian coast. Will the Minister outline his plans, working with other Departments, to maximise these trade opportunities to create jobs?

Indeed we can do that. We are in a good position with China at the moment, not least following our acceptance of the very important investment of companies such as Huawei, which places us very well to take in further investment. We have been talking about exports, but it is worth pointing out that the flipside of the coin for this country is inward investment, with some £250 billion-worth of opportunities in our infrastructure between now and 2020. We do need Chinese investment. We need investment from around the world, and we welcome that. If my hon. Friend has good examples in his constituency, that is all to the good.

I call Mr Kelvin Hopkins. [Interruption.] I thought that the hon. Gentleman wanted to ask a question. Well, it will have to wait for another time; fair enough. I call Mr David Winnick.

I hope that the nation will appreciate that, Mr Speaker.

Is it not of interest that both United States presidential candidates have emphasised in the debates that took place between them their support for sanctions rather than any military strike against the Iranian regime? Does not that very largely express the mood in the United States, let alone here, that warmongering, which unfortunately some people are involved in—certainly not the Foreign Secretary—would be wrong and counter-productive?

Both candidates in the presidential debates have, yes, been talking about the policy that I have been talking about in this House. I am sure that the two candidates for President of the United States are the experts on the mood in the United States more than any of us can possibly be here. Our approach, and that of the United States, is based on sanctions and negotiations. The United States is part of the E3 plus 3 nations that I have been talking about, and its sanctions are as strict as anyone’s, so it clearly believes in this approach.

Is there not a democratic imbalance—I know that the Foreign Secretary will agree with this question and so give a good answer—in allowing every 16-year-old in Scotland to vote on whether to remain in the Union while ensuring that no one in this country under the age of 55 has ever had a chance to vote on whether we should stay in the European Union?

Since my hon. Friend seems to know that I will agree with him, I am not sure why I am bothering to answer to question, but the rules of the House require me to do so.

That does not mean that I am going to give a very full or enlightening answer. My hon. Friend is comparing apples with oranges when he talks about the voting age in one referendum and the time elapsed since another referendum. I am sure that he appreciates that.

In Azerbaijan there is continuing arbitrary detention, torture and trumped-up charges against human rights defenders, journalists and now even YouTube uploaders. What active interest is the Government taking in relation to a number of recent and current cases in the courts?

We raise both general concerns and individual cases in the regular conversations between our ambassador and the Azeri authorities. I also do so myself when I have what are quite frequent conversations with the Azeri Foreign Minister.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but as I have said before this is a box office occasion and I hope that colleagues disappointed this time will not be disappointed next time.